China’s Ministry of Public Security claims that the Chinese police force has already investigated over 50,000 instances of “fabrication” and “dissemination” of harmful and false information. These investigations took place during the tail end of January and continued into February.
By now, the actual number is sure to be much higher. The Chinese Human Rights Defenders have been collecting all of the necessary information and they have looked into nearly 1,000 cases. Their findings were disconcerting. The Chinese government has been censoring social media, deleting the accounts that are spreading information that paints them in a negative light.
Other accounts were placed in administrative detention and police have handed out a wide range of punishment. Warnings, interrogations, forced confessions and enforced disappearances are common. When the Chinese Human Rights Defenders looked into these cases, they were unable to find out more about the punishments that had been levied against the “offenders”.
That’s because the Chinese government is burying any and all information that could reflect poorly on them. The pretext that these authorities are using is also purposefully vague. People are being accused of spreading false information and starting rumors. The police are also suspending social media accounts for “leaking privacy” and “disrupting social order”.
The Chinese Human Rights Defenders have constructed a timeline of all of the cases. According to their findings, they were two spikes in the reporting of these cases. The first spike took place back in January, around the time that the Chinese first started ti acknowledge the seriousness of the virus.
The second spike occurred in February. Dr. Li Wenliang is one of the primary whistle blowers who turned up dead and the Chinese government sprung into action soon after. A wider range of online users were punished for their posts after Dr. Li Wenliang passed away.
Chinese social media users decried his death and there was a major outpouring of grief. Government officials were taken to task and Chinese social media was full of demands for free speech. The heightened crackdown is likely linked to these posts. It is clear to see that the Chinese are not being very transparent and it’s sad to see the rest of the world using them as a model for how to handle the crisis.
From our incomplete list of cases, we are able to tell that the punishments handed out by police fall largely into several types: administrative detention, criminal detention, enforced disappearance, fines, warnings/interrogations, forced confessions and “educational reprimand”. In over half of these cases, we could not find the specific punishments meted out against the “offenders.” Of the specified types of punishment, police favoured administrative detention (18.5% of the total) and “educational reprimand” (17.8% of the total).
The offenses or crimes or pretext that authorities used to back up the punishments include “spreading rumours,” “fabricating false information,” “causing panic,” “disrupting public/social order,” and “leaking privacy.” In the vast majority of these cases, or 93% of the total, police cited “spreading misinformation, disrupting public order” as the pretext for punishing online speech related to COVID-19 outbreak in China.
State media was ordered to downplay the doctor’s death by Chinese officials. CCP discipline officials were dispatched to Wuhan to conduct an investigation. Independent journalists who dared to tell the truth also vanished. Chen Qiushi is one of the citizen journalists who was taken away by the police after drawing on his background as a lawyer to bring attention to the situation on the frontline.
Fang Bin is another citizen who was taken away for posting videos that depicted life at the center of the outbreak. Li Zehua is a former CCTV host and citizen journalist who was taken away from the same reason. The vanishings have continued recently as well. Ren Zhiqiang, a Chinese property developer who has been dubbed “The Cannon” for being such a straight shooter, wrote an opinion piece that led to his own disappearance.
The piece was viewed as being overly critical of President Xi Jinping. He’s now in the process of being investigated for severe violations. Communist governments are simply not going to tolerate any form of criticism. Even if these people are telling the truth, they are being encouraged to shut up. The Chinese government knows no bounds when it comes to censorship.
Worst of all, United States media outlets are refusing to report on the matter in a honest manner. They are treating the Chinese as if they are truly trustworthy and reliable. In reality, they are not willing to provide any information that anyone can actually use. If they are willing to lie to their own citizens like this, what would they do if foreign media outlets started telling the truth?
According to this timeline, after the January 20 Xinhua announcement, when information about the rapidly spreading virus was critically important for the public, who were nervous and scared, Chinese police acted with apparently concerted nationwide operations in penalizing many more online users—396 of the 897 cases occurred between January 21-31…
In February, the number of punishments shown on our list peaked with 467 individuals sanctioned. The death of Dr Li Wenliang from coronavirus on February 6 drew massive outcry on Chinese social media, with an outpouring of grief, anger, and denouncements of government officials. Many Chinese netizens demanded their right to free speech. The spike of penalties imposed by police on online users in February likely reflected a heightened crackdown by authorities in response to the surge of expressed strong emotions on the Internet over Dr Li’s death. Government censors ordered state media to downplay his death and dispatched CCP discipline officials from Beijing to Wuhan to conduct an investigation.
Our elected officials should be rattling their cages and asking to learn more about the real truth. There is no reason for our media outlets to remain beholden to Chinese interests like this. By allowing misinformation to spread throughout the world, these media outlets are engaging in a certain level of complicity.
It would be nice to see the Chinese government taken to task by reporters who cannot be “disappeared” because their facts are not welcome. The rest of the world does not have to be afraid of the Chinese but when it comes to COVID-19 reporting? There is definitely a huge level of reticence and we hope that media outlets are able to overcome their fear going forward.